Columbus schools reach no decision on bus contract

May 14, 2013 10:24:34 AM

Sarah Fowler - [email protected]


The Columbus Municipal School District is still deliberating over a pair of bids for its bus service. 


During Tuesday night's meeting, the board unanimously voted to table a motion that would decide between bids from local company and current provider Waters Truck and Tractor and Nashville, Tenn.-based company Ecco Ride. 


Assistant Superintendent Craig Shannon recommended the board accept the lowest bid of $7,572,131 from Ecco Ride for the four-year contract. Waters bid was over a million dollars higher at $8,859,331.87. 


Board member Jason Spears questioned Shannon on his recommendation, noting that although Ecco Ride was the lowest bidder, Spears said he was concerned about how it might impact current bus drivers. He also made note that the Tennessee-based company does not currently hold a school contract in Mississippi or in Alabama and only one in Tennessee. Spears added that Ecco Ride has several different bus lines that operate under its umbrella and asked which line would be providing the service for Columbus. 


"They're confined in the northeast of New York and Wisconsin as their primary markets," Spears said. "Since Ecco Ride is a holding company, as they described in their proposal, for several different providers, what company will be providing services to our district? They have several different vendors. Which vendor will we hire?" 


Both Ecco Ride and Waters representatives attended Tuesday's meeting and Ecco Ride President Thomas McGaughey appeared before the board to address Spears' concerns. McGaughey said that although his company does not have any contracts in Mississippi, they will be working with their affiliate ACR Coach Leasing, a charter bus line based in Mayhew. 


"The question was asked how many contracts do we have in the state of Mississippi," McGaughey told the board. "The fact is, we don't have any. We don't have any in the state of Alabama. We have perhaps 30 in the state of New York, 20 in Wisconsin and about a year ago we took over about 25 percent of the Jacksonville, Fla., contract. That's about 250 buses." 


McGaughey said that his company and companies under his control have been in business for more than 60 years. 


"Are we new to Mississippi? We are," he said. "Are we new to the school bus business? We are not. This is what we do. This is all we do. This is not something new to us. We're in the school bus business. Our local connection is Randy Futrill with ACR coaches." 


Futrill addressed the board and reiterated McGaughey's key points. 


"We've been here in Lowndes County for 10 years," Futrill said. "We are a local company. Ecco Ride is a company out of Tennessee but how this works is you have your local guy down here. That is, I will be on grounds here, you will call me." 


He added that with 17 coaches and three sleeper coaches, he felt confident in his company's abilities. 


"We're not a mom-and-pop operation," he said. "We have over 40 employees. We pay Lowndes County taxes." 


Spears continued, asking Shannon why he felt the price differences were so great between the two companies. 


"The thing that we could see was the actual route rate, the individual route rate, provided by each company," Shannon responded. "Ecco Ride is stating they would operate at a rate of $109. 31 the first and second year and they actually go up to $111.50 the third and fourth year." 


In comparison, Waters route rate is $128.71 per week the first year, $132 a week the following year, $136 and then $139 for the third and fourth year of the contract respectively. 


"That is the main difference in the two prices," Shannon said. 


"Now as far as drilling down more into the numbers that are provided in the proposals, looking at one of the major reason this Ecco Ride proposal was able to come in lower is that they greatly reduced benefits and pay for the transportation personnel," Spears said. He questioned why Shannon recommended a company that would negatively impact current employees. 


Shannon said the benefits that the employees would be offered were comparable to what is currently available through Waters, but the pay would be almost $2-per-hour less under Ecco Ride's plan. Ecco Ride will pay drivers $19.19 an hour while Waters would pay $21.01 an hour which is the employees' current rate. 


Spears disputed Shannon's assertion that the benefits were comparable under both plans. He said Waters currently offers their employees health and life insurance as well as contributions to a 401(k). In its proposal, Ecco Ride said health insurance would be provided to employees on a "case by case basis." Employees with Ecco Ride could earn contributions to their 401(k) after they worked 300 hours with the company 


Spears said he had reviewed 401(k) statistics from 2007 until 2011 and found that just one of Ecco Rides' companies had made contributions. 


Spears also questioned the lack of life insurance provided for the drivers. 


"Another sticking point is that our current provider offers life insurance to their employees," Spears said. "(With) the new provider, the proposal stipulates they don't offer any life insurance for their employees. So there is a major discrepancy between those two proposals based off of that. Obviously that filtered back up or down, depending how you look at it, to the bottom line." 


The board continued to examine the two proposals including comparing the cost differences of maintenance costs. While both companies would have a standard labor cost plus 10 percent, Ecco Ride's proposal said it would bill the district $40 per hour. Waters currently does not bill for labor costs. 


Spears noted that the $1.2 million in savings over eight years is less than three-fourths of a percent of the district's overall budget.  


Board member Angela Verdell made the motion to table the bids until the board members had time to further review both proposals. Spears said that if Verdell would remove her motion, he would motion to reject the bid from Ecco Ride. After some discussion among the board and board attorney David Dunn, the board voted unanimously to table the motion to accept the bid. 


Shannon asked the board to consider that the bid process needs to be decided fairly soon. 


"This process began in March," Shannon said. "In two months, there is going to be 4,700 students looking to get on the bus and go to school. There are time factors that have to be considered." 


Bus driver Gregory Thomas said he was concerned about a potential pay cut should Ecco Ride win the contract. Thomas said the drivers already took a pay cut and is concerned that another cut could hurt his livelihood. 


"I like working for Waters," he said. "They've got good insurance and they treat you like a person. As far as the pay cut, $109 dollars a week is not enough for dealing with kids. I'm serious. They cuss you out and you have to put up with all kinds of stuff. It's just not enough." 






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    Sarah Fowler covered crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.